It is the city of golden exile, the city whose heroes and treasures all began as a mote in some foreign eye. Ravenna. It's where Dante fled from his native Florence; Byron stalked its shores in his ill-fated countdown to Missolonghi; where Garibaldi, hiding like a hermit in the nearby pine groves, plotted the unification of Italy.

It's not just individual outcasts that Ravenna has sheltered. Whole empires have sought its sanctuary. If it has granted it to upstart empires - the Goths and Ostrogoths - so too to history's most sovereign company, the Roman Empire, whose brittle fortunes began and ended here. It was in Ravenna on Jan. 12, 49 BC , that Caesar massed his troops to conquer Rome, and here, five centuries later, that the last Roman emperor with his Greek haircut and displaced court fled in exile.

It's a city, then, that's always offered a place to those loitering in history's margins. This is Ravenna's legend. But only in part. For this tiny northern Italian town is the former citadel of nothing less than Western civilization, a stronghold of Roman and, later, Christian authority. After the decline of Rome, in that dark pause between the early and mid-5th century when barbarian invasions devastated Europe, Ravenna became the seat and preserve of the Western Empire.

Historians have likened Ravenna to a candle flickering amid extinguishing darkness. The metaphor is apt. As barbarian hordes sacked Italy, plundering its art treasures, Ravenna, by contrast, sheltered and spawned the greatest art forms outside Byzantium: the famed Christian mosaics. The finest, most extensive examples in Europe, they wash the interiors of Ravenna's oldest buildings.

In fact, it's impossible to visit Ravenna without sensing the particular solace that exiles like Dante must have felt in this city's stark beauty. For Ravenna is a city that, like the exile, is luminously lit from within. Its rigorously unadorned facades open to interiors whose walls shimmer with mantels of gold leaf mosaic. To step inside the cavernous darkness of Ravenna's churches , adjusting one's eyes to the mosaics haloing overhead, is indeed a staggering experience, as satisfying as discovering gold coins buried deep in the earth.

Unlike the Byzantine ornateness that is the hallmark of St. Mark's in Venice, a vigorous simplicity and naive charm animate the Ravenna mosaics. Executed as early as 425, they are the earliest examples of Christian artwork outside Rome. Here we find the beardless Christ of the Catacombs; a youthful John the Baptist; saints dressed in togas like Roman senators. If suffering and crucifixion are the thematic emphasis of later religious art, the Ravenna mosaics extol the opposite. Theirs is the imagery of birth and renewal, baptism and transfiguration, images that paralleled the historic birth of the early Christian sects that settled in Ravenna.

Conceived primarily as a teaching tool, the mosaics are a kind of catechism in stone, a visual guide to the Gospels for a populace that was then largely illiterate. Since Christianity was still suspect as a movement, the evangelical urgency of its message was carefully coded into safe visual symbols. Sheep grazing in pastures or birds drinking from a fount bespoke Christian fellowship. Complex theological doctrine, then, translated into images of astounding purity and simplicity. Nowhere is the marriage of message and image so perfectly realized as here. In fact, it's the freshness, the radical innocence, of these mosaics that draws so many to Ravenna. Over the centuries, the mosaics have served as a sublime visual puzzle whose pieces lock into place Christianity's first face.

Ravenna, a provincial capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, lies on the Adriatic coast some 35 miles southeast of Bologna. Formerly a lagoon city like Venice, it occupied the seat of the Adriatic fleet under Augustus. But the sea, like the town's glory, has receded somewhat. The city is still traversed by deep drainage canals that spill from the Po to the Adriatic, but its perimeters are now landlocked, bordered by beachfront only on the east. From the horizon, Ravenna's basilicas loom like stranded ships.

Historically, Ravenna celebrated three moments of glory: Imperial under Honorius and his sister, Galla Placidia; Gothic under Theodoric the Great; and Byzantine under Justinian. Each sovereign added and enriched Ravenna's mosaics. (Like everything else here, even the mosaics had their origin elsewhere, notably in the Roman and Byzantine courts.) Under Galla Placidia's rule, mosaicists encrusted walls with jewel-like scenes, vivid characterizations of Christian miracles. Theodoric, reared in Constantinople, infused Ravenna's mosaics with the severe stylization of St. Sophia. Capitalizing on this Byzantine influence, Justinian introduced a secular note into the artwork. Much as medieval patrons would later feature themselves in religious art, so Justinian incorporated court portraits into the Christian mosaics.

The way to see Ravenna and its mosaics is backward. That is, starting with its final churches and working toward its oldest. The strategy is simple. Ravenna, like Rome, is a Christian time capsule, but one that's historically compressed and geographically manageable. Nowhere is the evolution of early Christian art and thought charted more dramatically as here. In Ravenna we can trace Christianity back to its cleanest components. We begin with the gaudy brilliance of the Justinian mosaics, with archangels trumpeting the majesty of courtly life, and we end with a single image in the earliest shrine: a lamb gamboling in a spring pasture. What's instructive, then, is witnessing an art form - and the doctrine behind it - devolve into its purest expression. That is the magic of Ravenna.

From Bologna, it's half an half hour's car or train ride to Ravenna. Trains are inexpensive and offer the best scenery as they shoot across the northern Italian plain. Arriving at the station, it's a brisk three-minute walk to the Piazza del Popolo, a 15th-century square that's the center of modern Ravenna life.

From the piazza, head northwest to San Vitale, a large octagonal-shaped church crowned by an octagonal dome. Begun in 526 under Theodoric's reign and completed during Justinian's, San Vitale is the best introduction to Ravenna's art. Inside, every inch of its walls is studded with brilliantly colored mosaic. A shower of gold, it chronicles scenes from the Old Testament while glorifying the New with its own iconography. Christian symbols - lambs, dolphins, and doves - coexist effortlessly with those of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the prophets.

Most resplendent is the double mosaic in the apse. Illustrating Justinian and his court on one side and his wife, Theodora, and her retinue on the other, the mosaics are a complex rhythmic interplay of profiles and light. Drenched in jewels (Theodora's pearl-laden crown is a miracle of workmanship), the courtiers file before us in a parade of civic majesty. They are a timeless tapestry in stone.

Yet the intended effect - the opulence of Justinian's court - is wonderfully upstaged. If you look closely at the Justinian side, you'll notice one figure is burdened with an extra leg. The error is easy to explain. Mosaic work, like frescoes, is a one-shot art form. Working on a quick-drying lime surface, artisans must fit the stone or glass mosaic perfectly the first time. Because of the time constraint, two artisans often tackled a single figure. Here, working top to bottom, one artisan thought he was detailing one figure while his partner thought it was two.

Directly behind San Vitale is the modest tomb of Galla Placidia. Erected in the shape of a Latin cross, in 440, it offers the staunchest contrast to the opulence of San Vitale. Nowhere in Ravenna is the contrast between early and late Christian art and ideal more radically evident than here. If San Vitale is the culmination of Christian expression in Ravenna, then Galla Placidia's tomb marks its purest beginning. San Vitale, one might say, glitters; Galla Placidia's tomb glows. Its simple brick exterior offers no clue to the brilliance of its interior: a wash of cobalt blue mosaic speckled with starbursts. Its barrel-vaulted ceiling and dome shimmer with scenes and symbols of the Evangelists.

Heading east to the Via di Roma, stop at Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, a 6 th-century basilica that houses some of the most famous mosaics. Of all Ravenna's churches, this is my favorite. In its spacious nave, supported by 24 marble columns imported from Constantinople, we witness the actual evolution of the mosaic itself.

Superimposed on each wall are three strips of mosaic. The oldest, the Roman, lines the bottom; Gothic, the middle; and Byzantine, the very top. Chronicling scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, the mosaics are visual vignettes detailing magi and miracles, saints, prophets, and evangelists. Of these, the most interesting are the Roman, which depict Ravenna when it was called Classis. Here ships bob in a perfect blue sea; palaces sparkle; basilicas tower over town walls.

To trace Ravenna's mosaics to an even earlier point, head back toward the Piazza del Popolo, stopping at the Arian Baptistery off the Via Paolo Costa. While heavily restored after damage was inflicted during World War II, the baptistery is one of the finest examples of early Christian art. On its dome, a young beardless Christ is baptized by an even more youthful John the Baptist. The Apostles, rimming the dome, are togaed like Roman senators.

To find Ravenna's earliest shrine, visitors must head back to the train station and board a bus for Classe Fuori, two miles south on the road to Rimini. There you'll find Ravenna's oldest and best-preserved basilica, Sant' Apollinare in Classe Fuori. While 18th-century medallions grace the nave's walls, the church is remarkable for its otherwise stark interior. The eye focuses instead on its most striking feature: the mosaicked apse, a luminous pastoral scene of a shepherd tending his flock.

This is the image that Ravenna's first Christians beheld. Standing in the cool darkness, tracing the scene with an appreciative eye, one can't help being moved by it. Nor by the elegant simplicity of the shrine itself. It is deeply satisfying. Cleansing. One wonders how many of Ravenna's outcasts wandered here. How many for whom the sting of exile was momentarily cooled, and home seemed not so far away.

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